When I was staying in a studio apartment on Rue Broca, in the Croulebarbe quarter of the 13th arrondissement, I decided to take a walk up the street to see what there was to see.
Rue Broca is not a very long street, only four blocks, but it used to be somewhat famous because of a children’s book called Contes de la rue Broca (Tales of Broca Street) by Pierre Gripari (1925-1990). I saw a used copy of this book in the window of a nearby bookshop (up, literally up, on Boulevard de Port Royal) but the shop was closed for a long weekend and in any case I thought 25 Euros was a bit much for a children’s book, especially because it was in a language that my grandchildren didn’t understand.
So I haven’t read the book, but I did manage to watch several episodes of the cartoon version on YouTube, before they were taken offline. These were cleverly done and entertaining for children and adults alike, at least for those who understand French. The cartoons were also dubbed into German and shown on German television in the 1990s, but I don’t think the German versions are online anywhere, either.
Of course when I walked up Rue Broca I didn’t see any of the magical things that happened in the Tales, but I did come across a genuine traditional book binding shop, the Atelier Houdart at 77 Rue Broca. The shop has been here for over seventy years in what they call a ‘village’ street in a niche under the Boulevard de Port Royal. The eight or ten young book binders who work here are described as “experts in traditional bookbinding: most of the work is performed according to traditional manual processes that ensure a high level of quality.” The atelier’s website shows in detail how the re-binding and restoration of books is done using traditional methods. (In French but with large, clear pictures.)
Here is where the Boulevard de Port Royal crosses Rue Broca on a bridge, which for Paris is a rather unusual arrangement. For pedestrians there are four staircases. The first one on the left leads to the Vélib’ bicycle station number 13001. The Boulevard de Port Royal is the boundary between the 13th and the 5th arrondissements, so Rue Broca is evenly divided between the two.
This glass-fronted building is the Broca Library at 21 rue Broca. This is a law and business library belonging to the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne), one of the thirteen universities that currently exist in Paris.
Rue Broca was named after the neurosurgeon and anthropologist Pierre Paul Broca (1824-1880). It turns out that he not only has a street named after him, but also section of the human brain, known as ‘Broca’s Area’, which (as he was the first to demonstrate) is essential for speech production.
Rue Édouard Quénu is a very short street, only 41 meters long. It is the continuation of Rue Broca and was in fact a part of Rue Broca until 1938, when they decided Quénu deserved to be remembered, too.
Édouard Quénu (1852-1933) was a French surgeon who among other achievements persuaded his colleagues to wear disposable rubber gloves which they were operating on people, thus reducing the risk of infection considerably.
At 2 Rue Édouard Quénu there is a bookshop that used to be called L’Arbre à Lettres (The Tree of Letters), but is now Les Traversées (The Crossings), having changed its name (and perhaps changed owners?) in 2015. I did some prolonged browsing in this shop, which I found very pleasant and friendly. Even if you don’t read French you might want to go in and have a look around, just to enjoy the atmosphere and see what they have on offer.
Square Saint-Médard, at the lower end of Rue Édouard Quénu, is the sort of French ‘square’ that puzzles us English speakers because it is not shaped like a square but rather like a circle. Off to the right, behind the trees, you might be able to make out the Church of Saint-Médard. This is the church where Jean Valjean often went with Cosette in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Here Valjean was recognized by Inspector Javert because of his habit of giving alms to the beggars in this poor neighborhood, although he was dressed very poorly himself.
Location and aerial view of the Church of Saint Médard on monumentum.fr.
This marker between the stones on Square Saint-Médard reminds us that once upon a time the Bièvre River used to flow right through here. It says that this is where the two arms of the river came together.
The Bièvre was used — and polluted — by tanners, dyers, washerwomen, butchers and hospitals for hundreds of years, starting in the 14th century. It was banished underground at the beginning of the 20th century.
Another street that leads uphill from Square Saint-Médard, but in a different direction, is Rue Mouffetard, an old narrow street with numerous shops, restaurants and pubs and a more or less permanent street market. In earlier times this was a desperately poor area, as described by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables and by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, among many other writers.
At the upper (north) end of Rue Mouffetard is another well-known square, the Place de la Contrescarpe, formerly also a place of great poverty. The American author Ernest Hemingway lived nearby in the 1920s; he described the square vividly in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and later in A Moveable Feast.
My photos in this post are from 2007 and 2013. I revised the text in 2020.